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Interview with Tariq Ramadan | The Chronicle of Higher Education | 9 September 2004
Has academic freedom fallen victim to post-September 11 efforts to safeguard the country's borders? For some people, the U.S. government's revoking of a visa for Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim scholar, has raised such questions. Are their concerns valid? Why do other people consider him such a threat?The guest Tariq Ramadan, 42, is a professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland. A transcript of the chat follows: Burton Bollag (Moderator): Good afternoon. Our guest today is Prof. Tariq Ramadan. He will be answering questions from his home in Geneva, Switzerland, since the US government decided to bar his entry to the US. My name is Burton Bollag; I am a reporter at the Chronicle. Let's begin. Question from Adele N.Welty, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,: How can we truly understand how the anger and hatred directed at us on 9/11 has been growing in intensity if we do not listen to the voices of those willing and able to teach us? And why would any journal of higher learning quote Daniel Pipes, a man who has condemned all Muslims as well as all immigrants in articles bereft of logic and rational discourse? Tariq Ramadan: Dialogue is needed. The psychological trauma through which the American people went through should be felt and understood by the Muslims and this is why the Muslims should speak, explain and be self-critical. As for the people who can use this to spread fear and suspicion, I think we should avoid entering in this kind of controversy and create bridges between people from different faiths. This is why I wanted to come to the States and I am sure that with time the suspicions are going to disappear. Question from Dr. Mark John Hunter, citizen of Alpena, Michigan: I suggest offering your courses at Notre Dame using the newest technology. It is possible to have office hours by Internet; there is no reason the University could not assign an office to you and appoint a secretary or teaching assistant for you. Have lectures by cameras and projection screens; it can be arranged for you to take questions from students in real time, as you allow during the lecture. I cannot see how Homeland Security could object. I have tried to connect to your Internet site http://www.tariq-ramadan.orgAfter three security warnings from my security software, which I chose to over ride, the response received is that I am not authorized to view the site! Do I have the correct address? I disagree with your theological thoughts, but I have only commentaries about these. So far I have not found your books. Where may these be purchased? Tariq Ramadan: I thank you for your proposals but the University and I want to solve the problem... not to find ways of teaching. My presence there is crucial. I need to interact with the students and the professors. I hope it will be solved without having to rely on "virtual presence." As to my Web site, we are trying to solve some technological problems. It should be OK in a couple of days. And please read the books. I am ready to discuss with you my theological thoughts. The book is published by OUP. Question from Rick Livingston, Ohio State University: Dr. Ramadan -- I consider the revocation of your travel visa to the US to be an unconscionable infringement of the right to free speech, and sad testimony to the state of political discourse in this country. For a like this one can be an important means of contesting this policy. No doubt Notre Dame has facilities allowing for real-time video conferencing, and there must be equivalent facilities available in Geneva. Have you considered the possibilities of teaching -- and continuing pedagogical dialogue -- through electronic means? Tariq Ramadan: We are thinking about it. For the time being we still try to solve the visa problem. I am in permanent touch with the University and we are trying to find the best and most wise solution. Comment from Donald M. Freeman, Professor Emeritus, the University of Evansville: When did the Chronicle of Higher Education decide that Tariq Ramadan is a "controversial Muslim scholar?" By your own selection of the term "controversial," you have joined up with the Ashcrofts & the House of Bush. When you know your government is willfully and deliberately lying to you, you must not become its agent in a conspiracy to destroy freedom in this country and academic freedom. Question from Nader Hashemi, University of Toronto: One of the gravest charges against you is that in a televised debate with France's Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, you refused to condemn "lapidation" -- the stoning of adulterous wives as mandated by a strict interpretation of the Koran. Instead, you merely called for a "moratorium" on the practice. Could you clarify you position on this topic? Tariq Ramadan: I said two things during the debate with Sarkozy: 1. I am against the implementation of all corporal punishment and the death penalty. This is my personal opinion and I condemned what is going on in countries like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. 2. The opinion among Muslim scholars is, in majority, not like mine. So, I want to open an intracommunity dialogue about these punishments in order to discuss the meaning of the scriptural sources, the conditions of their implementation and the context within which it is said that they can be implemented. With the moratorium, I want to open a debate and to show that there is a great deal of disagreement between the scholars. It is a pedagogical way to help the Muslim minds and societies to understand that we have to stop. This is exactly the way Amnesty International proposes a moratorium when it is still not possible (culturally or pschologically) to immediately abolish it. Let me tell you that the way I have been putting it helped a lot of Muslims in the Islamic world to ask for an immediate stop or "moratorium." It is heard and it helps many Muslims to speak out. Question from Chris Coulter, Cleveland, OH: Please explain "taqiyya" to the audience. If Islam professes to be such an honorable religion why should it resort to such measures? Tariq Ramadan: Taqiyya is a concept mainly used by the Chi'a tradition. Actually it means that a Muslim can hide his/her religion when she/he is facing oppression. The classical Islamic tradition, even in the Chi'a tradition, does not speak or promote taqiyya in anyway. The Islamic tradition, on the contrary, is teaching us to be transparent, honest, and just with all the people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is the fundamental ethical teaching of Islam. Question from Laura Rosen Cohen, University of Toronto: As a religious Muslim, can you explain why Muslims are unwilling to denounce the wholesale slaughter of civilians, including women and babies without any "but's" or other qualifiers? Without the issue of loathing of the Jews and Israel, would the Muslim world have any other raison d'etre? Tariq Ramadan: I think you are right on one essential point: Muslim leaders, scholars or ulema are not condemning sufficiently what is done in the name of their religion. Very often they feel that they have to justify themselves and be on the defensive. I am of the opinion that we have to speak out and say that is condemnable and not accepted by our religion. I think you also have to acknowledge that things are improving and that in America, in Europe and in the Islamic world, Muslims are starting to face up to their responsibility. It is not enough but it is better than before. Question from Dr. Deaux, research university: Do you believe the state of Israel has a right to exist in its current form? Tariq Ramadan: The State of Israel is a reality. What I want for Israel as for all the other countries in the world, and first for the so-called Islamic countries, is to reach the highest level of implementing these four cardinal principles: State of Law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage and accountability of the leaders. My main concerns today, as to the domestic policy in Israel is the situation and the rights of the Arab Israelis who face daily difficulties because they are sometimes treated as second class citizens. These constructive criticisms should be heard. As to the conflict itself, I think I shall come to that later with another question. Question from Ian Gesher -- Forum fuer Diasporakultur e.V.: In your discussion of the separation of religion and state, you have tended to lump Judaism together with Protestantism, as "Judeo-Christian". Would you accept that this: (a) leads you to compare normative Islam with real Liberal Judaism, rather than with normative Judaism i.e. orthodox Judiasm (b) that this is a specific and contingent Francophone view based on French state history (c) an "end-state" which takes no account of its development and thus (d) that your ideas could benefit from a dialogue with and discussion of the development of orthodox Jewry as a comparable "test case" to Islam and (e) you might, contrary to expectations, find your closest religious allies in the Jewish Modern Orthodox movement? Tariq Ramadan: I don't think that I have tended to lump Judaism together with with Protestantism. My perception of the "Judeo-Christian" legacy and history is more complex than that, I hope. As to the orthodox Jewry and its proximity with the Islamic tradition, it could be "contrary to expectations" for people who have not studied the two traditions. I do not see anything suprising in this proximity and I am learning a lot from the Jewish Modern Orthodox movement, as you call it. Question from David W. Pan, Northeastern State U in Oklahoma: Death is viewed as a method for the ultimate punishment under any government of a nation in the world, but it is as a gateway to heaven, at least under some Islamic views. Consequently, suicide bombers are martyrs for their religious causes. How can we reconcile with this isssue from two fundamentally different perspectives? We may start at the right direction for a peaceful world. Tariq Ramadan: Every nation, every religion and community has people called "martyrs," the people who died for a cause it considered as just. The question for us is to know if we have to encourage people to kill themselves. My response is no. Under oppression, political resistance is legitimate and we must support the oppressed to find peaceful and non-violent ways to free themselves. To condemn the killing of innocent people is necessary but I think it is wrong to sit down and to blame the guilty people. We should stand up and try to be involved in order to help them to protect their innocence. This is the teaching of my life with poor people: We can pass our time to condemn the guilty people or use it to help them to remain innocent. This is my way. Question from Judith Jensen, Educational Solutions: In considering the "Islamic-Western" divide, would you list three of your major ideas which would be considered "Islamic" and three of your major ideas which would be considered "Western"? Tariq Ramadan: This is exactly what I refuse to do... I do not believe in such division. Then, let me give you three of my major ideas that are in the intersection: Human dignity and integrity, critical mind, freedom of worship and conscience. I am looking for the common values and after years of studying Western, Eastern and Islamic philosophy, I believe that the divides are more in our perceptions than in reality. Question from Arthur Krawiec, an accountant in New York: In the long term, will immigrants from Middle East convert Europe to Islam? Tariq Ramadan: I can understand your fears and I think that Muslims must be clear about what they really want. What I hope and want for European Muslims is to be at the same time fully Muslims and fully European. The better future we can hope for all the religions is to live together and to learn from each other. "If God had willed, He would have made you one community." Diversity is His will so we have to respect it and to promote diversity -- for diversity is, among human beings, the only way to learn humility. Humility is the first quality of the people trying to serve God and human beings. Question from Steve Rozman Tougaloo College , a historically black institution: What reasons, if any, have been given for denying you a visa? Tariq Ramadan: No explanation so far. All the allegations that came afterwards were known by the US administration before I got the visa in May. Thus, this is what we expect from the DHS and the State Dept: Why? I still hope that this decision is going to be reconsidered. Question from Timothy Cunningham, Veeco Instruments: Greetings Mr. Ramadan. A salam alekum. I am not an academic, just an interested citizen. I heard your interview on "The Connection" radio show the other day, and am concerned that your visa exclusion violates certain basic principals of openness that I would like to see the US adhere to. Your rhetoric, as displayed on "The Connection" is utterly sensible and admirable. To my dilemma and my question: I have a lot of respect for the opinions of Bernard-Henri Levy. I read, in translation and second hand, that you maintain that his book "Who killed Daniel Pearl" was written as a way to support Israel's pro-India policy and attack the Muslim state of Pakistan. Do you believe this, and what evidence can you offer? I am not a Zionist, and do not view this opinion as "anti-semitic," whether you hold it or not. I simply am surprised by it and interested to hear your arguement. Best of luck -- I hope you are able to get a Visa and come to Notre Dame. Tim Tariq Ramadan: My positions on this question are more complex than that. I need time and space to explain everything in detail. What I can tell you now is that I said that I respected the work of Bernard-Henri Levy in the way he is critical towards oppression in many countries. My concern was about its selective posture when it comes to the Palestinians. His book about Pearl is a mixture of good and bad. The assassination had to be strongly condemned (what I did immediately), but the book is not only about this and there are many implicit political implications that should be discussed. Question from Bradley Schrager, Notre Dame Law School: Prof. Ramadan -- We here at ND are saddened about what has transpired. The law school's Jewish Law Student Society, of which I am a member, put out an open letter to that effect not long ago. Since that time, we have received reporters' phone calls, e-mails from individuals all over Europe, and even appeared on local TV to discuss the issue of the visa revocation. I would understand the furor if it were simply a matter of the controversy itself, I suppose, but I suspect it has to do with the fact we are Jews defending your position, which strikes some as discordant. What can you say about your interfaith efforts, and about certain of your more strident critics who seem to dismiss those efforts as cosmetic? Tariq Ramadan: Let me say that I was myself moved by your support, and by the support of many Jewish friends and professors. For the last twenty years I have been working in interfaith dialogue with many Jewish scholars and average people; I know it is essential to work together and not to confuse the Middle-Eastern conflict and our spiritual and religious relationship and mutual legacy. We need people like you to speak out and you gave a great lessons to the Muslims themselves. The Jews who know my work recognize that I have been speaking against antisemitism and judeophobia and I did it, like you, as a matter of justice and principle. Let us remain consistent together: Whatever is the end of this situation, I shall not forget to speak about the lesson of courage and integrity you gave to the people around. For the last few weeks it is as if I had to understand that Notre Dame has its secrets, its graces and benedictions. May The Light love you and go along with you. Burton Bollag (Moderator): I'm afraid that's all we have time for today, but this discussion will certainly continue in many different venues. Our thanks to Prof. Tariq Ramadan, and to all those who sent in questions. (Unfortunately there was not enough time to answer many of the questions sent in.) Good-bye for now. Tariq Ramadan: Thank you to everyone who sent questions. Many questions and comments showed a lot of support and concern for me. Thank you again.